THE LAST DAYS ON MARS
About the Production
It was pulp sci-fi author Sydney J. Bounds's short story, The Animators, which provided the basis for what would become The Last Days on Mars. First published in 1975 in the anthology Tales of Terror from Outer Space, the story of a group of astronauts exploring the Martian surface fascinated screenwriter Clive Dawson, who brought the project to producer Michael Kuhn at Qwerty Films. "It was very succinctly written and felt like a film treatment," says producer Andrea Cornwell. "It's sparse and atmospheric, and put the focus not on spaceships but on the human psyche."
In the process of adapting the story, Dawson focused on expanding the mission's crew and decided to lead the story not with Brunel, the group's captain, as in the original story, but rather with senior systems engineer Vincent Campbell. "It's about a chain of events put into play on the very last day of one of the first missions to Mars," summarizes Cornwell. "What is unusual is rather than looking at their arrival on Mars, the story is about a group of people that had been together a long time and looking at the disintegration of the group psychology."
For Vincent, explains director Ruairi Robinson, what happens on the planet plays into the deepest of his fears. "He has a fear of losing himself that becomes manifest in facing something that literally threatens to take over," he says. "That's what first attracted me to the script: to place a character into a situation where they have to face the very thing they're terrified of in the worst way possible."
And it was this notion that attracted actor Liev Schreiber, who found the idea of Vincent's claustrophobia and anxiety immediately appealing. Says Schreiber: "One of the things we started talking about when I became involved was 'how do you articulate that claustrophobia?' 'How do you express something as complex as his sort of anxiety?'"
All the elements were aligned, he says. "Being trapped, in a space station, in close quarters, in spacesuits... all of it contributed to this oppressive, suffocating thing that was really interesting to explore."
In fact, it harked back to some of the most interesting science-fiction horror storytelling on the big screen. The touchpoints within the subgenre were films like Alien, The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and The Thing. "When we started this there hadn't been a movie in that key in years," says Robinson, "Or certainly not a good one, anyway."
But the influences went beyond science fiction too, he adds. "There are elements of Sergio Leone's Westerns in there -- a New Frontiers vibe. And for me, United 93 was a touchstone in terms of the tone of the acting and how to deal with emotion without resorting to cheap tugging at the heartstrings."
For Olivia Williams, who plays Kim, the film's character notes were instantly relatable and not at all confined to sci-fi genre setting. "That David Bowie-like image of the man floating around in the tin can is so powerful, but if you don't give a toss about who that man is then you might as well not bother. When I read the script, the sweet scene of Vincent sitting with Lane and talking about Earth won me over. It could be two people sitting on a park bench on the top of Primrose Hill. It has a timeless, placeless quality."
And as the title suggests, the story takes place on this crew's final few days on the surface of Mars, something that was crucial to completing the sense of desperation that is bubbling under the surface for all of these characters, as they realize their mission's aim -- to find life on Mars -- may well be left unresolved. They're also, says Cornwell, blasÃ© about the environment they're in: "They've already got over the 'wow, we're on Mars' phase."
"There's a sort of Treasure of the Sierra Madre quest for gold thing too," expands Robinson, "where the protocol goes out of the window once they see this prize that they'll get their name on if they're the first ones to find it. Everyone starts bickering and fighting each other and putting all their training aside, and that's when they start making mistakes. All those things come back to haunt them, in the form of death."
Goran Kostic, who plays Marko, agrees: "They all want to be the first to make the discovery and they're desperate to do it as the end of the mission approaches. They're prepared to take a one-way ticket if the chance is there for their names to make history. But none of them knows what's ahead."
Mars is what is killing them. "The walls are closing in," says Cornwell, "and humans aren't built to survive like this. Our characters' personal journeys mirror the themes of the film. Mars is vast, but there's nowhere to hide. And that almost makes it a counter-Western: there's no town over the hill to run to."
The Red Planet has played a part in countless science fiction stories, with the proximity of Earth's nearest neighbor, and the uncertainty about what might lurk in its red depths having inspired writers and filmmakers for more than a century. In fact, perhaps the most famous Martian story, HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, was first published in 1898. "It didn't occur to us that we were stepping into a genre of its own," relates Cornwell.
In the end, it was Ruairi Robinson's unique pitch for the project -- United 93 in space - that won him the job and crystallized The Last Days on Mars's unique place in the pantheon of Martian moviemaking. Says Cornwell: "In a way you want to forget it's a sci-fi movie and focus on those characters and their individual motivations, so when this massive event comes into their lives, you believe how they react to it."
A successful commercials and short film director and animator, Robinson was Oscar-nominated for his 2001 short Fifty Percent Grey. One of his most recent short, Blinky , is the story of a young boy and his unsettlingly cutesy housekeeper robot. "You only need to watch that film to know Ruairi has everything," enthuses Williams. "He created such empathy for a robot and it was also deftly observant of modern life and human relationships."
With an animation background, Robinson approaches every scene with a strong visual sense. "He storyboarded the film in extreme detail," says Romola Garai, who plays Lane, "and he knew exactly how he wanted to block each scene. We shot in continuous takes, with a roving camera, where every time we did the scene we did it in its entirety, and you could appear in the shot at any time."
This was a boon for the actors, who were afforded an opportunity to breathe and delve into their characters in each moment. "Ruairi's strength is in combining a strong visual sense with a real grasp of character," says Schreiber. "He's the kind of director who likes to figure things out on his feet, and so we'll suit up, get on set and start trying things. There's a lot of improvisation and finding the scene as we play it."
Kostic was impressed with Robinson's desire to hear the ideas of the cast and crew. "He's very open to ideas into what we're trying to achieve. We see him as another member of the mission's crew, there with us, feeding us information, listening and learning. The openness, and the idea of trust, is very important."
For Robinson, allowing his cast to build fully rounded performances in their own time was essential to selling the story's genre aspects. "It's not a straight horror film," he shares. "There are no cheap shocks. The fear is of mounting dread more than anything else, and so hopefully it'll be emotional."
The science fiction setting, which includes plenty of sequences set on the surface of Mars, makes it an ambitious undertaking for a film of its cost. But, says Schreiber, it's in the stories utilization of its budgetary limitations that it sets itself apart. "What I found so fascinating about the script was how sparse it was," he says. "Today, with CGI and spectacle and all of that, it almost feels like the genre has become a party for effects and production design, and forgetting the basic sense of suspense and withholding." The Last Days on Mars does the opposite, he insists.
"It's incredibly ambitious for the budget," confirms Robinson, "which makes it quite challenging, and means you've got to work harder to achieve what you want. But, I think, if I've done my job, it has converged in a decent way and hopefully it'll achieve the desired effect."
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